I’ve been fascinated by Thomas Jefferson ever since I wrote an article following his 1787 visit through the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy. Four years as envoy to France had made Jefferson quite an oenophile — or, perhaps I should say, oeno-fanatic. When he returned to the United States in 1789, he received regular shipments of French wine and grapevine clippings at his Virginia plantation.
Last weekend in DC, I rented a car and followed Jefferson full circle. I visited Monticello, the home of the gentleman farmer.
Jefferson built his beloved house from the wine cellar up, hiding a dumb waiter in a side pocket of the dining room fireplace, which allowed for a smooth, unjostled passage of bottles. He planted a small vineyard on a southeastern slope of his garden, though he never succeeded in producing Virginia wine. Instead, he drank imported vintages from Italy and France, as well as North Carolina scuppernong.
I loved visiting the grand, gracious house: the wide hall, with its Great Clock displaying the time and day of the week; Jefferson’s library, with his evolving collection of volumes, sold to pay off debt and immediately collected again– “I cannot live without books,” he wrote to John Adams; his sunny study and alcove bedroom; the parlor decorated with portraits of his heroes; the dining room where he and General Lafayette (and assorted pals) drank over 300 bottles of wine during Lafayette’s week-long visit.
But the basement rooms and passages below the house — the kitchens and storerooms, the ice house and stables — portray a different life, one of, quite literally, slave labor. Jefferson’s enthusiasms are evident everywhere at Monticello, even in the smokehouse, where he devised a special shelf to keep mice away from the hams. Equally visible is the evidence of his slaves, who built that special shelf and smoked those hams, toiled in his greenhouses, tilled his garden, served his food — and so much more. When Jefferson died in 1826, a man in debt, he emancipated 10 slaves, including his alleged mistress, Sally Hemings, and two of their children. The rest of them — hundreds of men and women — were sold at auction to resolve his debts. Of course I’d known about Jefferson’s slave ownership, but our candid guide helped me fully realized the extent of it (I thought he’d freed all his slaves at death). It altered my perception of a man I greatly admired — but you can’t change history, I suppose. Jefferson thought so too: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” he said.
Anyway. One of the last questions asked on our tour was what Jefferson and his friends ate to accompany their wine. Lots of vegetables, our guide said — Jefferson considered meat a condiment — some pork and chicken, wine-rich stews or daubes — prepared à la française — by Monticello’s French-trained chef. But as we headed out of Charlottesville, we kept passing horse farms, rolling hills contained by white fences, columned houses with deep porches. They made me crave Southern food — biscuits and chicken, tall glasses of iced tea. Alas, we didn’t pass anything resembling the Virginia road-side bakery of my dreams. So when I got home, I made the biscuits myself. Ah, self sufficiency. Jefferson would have approved.
Makes 8-10 biscuits
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 oz cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup buttermilk (shaken)
Preheat the oven to 425ºF.
Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Blend in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the buttermilk and stir with a fork until the dough comes together — it will be sticky, with bits of flour on the side of the bowl. I like to knead the dough a couple of times in the bowl to bring everything together.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. With a rolling pin (or your hands) pat out the dough into an 8-inch x 10-inch rectangle, about 1-inch thick. Cut the dough into 2 to 3-inch squares (or use the rim of a 2-inch juice glass). Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly golden.